BOSTON — Sophomore Ethan Mack has watched a few of his fellow Boston College students flaunt disrespect for Catholic teaching and school policy for years. They hang free condoms and other sexual products in envelopes outside of dorm-room doors and approach freshmen to place condoms in their hands.
In March, college administrators told them to knock it off in a letter that threatened disciplinary action if such students don’t stop the on-campus condom giveaways.
"It is about time," said Mack, managing editor of the independent campus newspaper The Observer, which promotes and defends Boston College’s Catholic identity. "For a while, a few of us who were concerned didn’t know if the administration was even aware of it. Finally they have taken action."
The administration’s opposition to on-campus condom distribution is supported by the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and reflects policies of most Catholic institutions.
Despite this, condom distributor and Boston College senior Lizzie Jekanowski said she will endure expulsion and forgo graduation instead of obeying a written order to stop distributing condoms in dorms at the Jesuit university.
"I find it extremely disturbing that we are even mildly threatened with expulsion," said Jekanowski, who heads a group called BC Students for Sexual Health.
"We’re not going to compromise our work in any way," she said. "We will not let this threat stop us from the work we do."
At issue is a March 15 letter from the dean of students, Paul Chebator, and George Arey, director of the Office of Residential Life, telling students to stop giving out condoms in the dorms. Jekanowski claimed distribution of condoms and other sexual products received support from Chebator, Arey and Christopher Darcy, associate director of residential ministry, "for years" before the ultimatum.
"The assertion that was made is false," said Chebator in an email to the Register. Arey and Darcy did not respond to the Register’s requests for comment.
"All students who live in our residence halls sign a contract agreeing to abide by the university’s Code of Conduct," added Chebator.
In his 1968 encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), Pope Paul VI re-emphasized the Church’s constant teaching that it is always intrinsically wrong to use contraception to prevent new human beings from coming into existence.
Humanae Vitae defines contraception as "any action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" (14).
The Church also teaches that sexual relations must be limited to marriage and that everyone is called to chastity.
The March 15 letter to condom distributors was composed, Chebator explained, after students expanded the scope of a condom-distribution program that administrators knew about.
"In recent years, this group of students moved from distributing condoms on public streets near campus to distributing condoms from several dorm rooms within BC’s residence halls," Chebator told the Register. "Administrators from our office met with them on several occasions to request that they refrain from publicly distributing condoms in residence halls, which was a violation of university policy. When the students continued their public distribution, we sent a letter to the students warning them that their actions could result in disciplinary sanction."
Boston College senior Ben Martin remembers the first time he encountered BC Students for Sexual Health.
"Someone handed me a condom," Martin said. "They just place something in your hand, and you don’t even know what it is at first, until you look at it."
Martin threw the condom away and decided to have a conversation with Jekanowski about Catholic teaching and Boston College policy. The two met for lunch on several occasions during Martin’s freshman and sophomore years, but little was accomplished.
"I actually have tremendous respect for Lizzie," Martin said. "But she and other members of the group long ago stopped participating in dialogue. They view any effort at dialogue as confrontational. I’ve hear them say, ‘We are about action, not dialogue.’"
Critics of Jekanowski’s group believe condom distribution demonstrates a lack of respect for the college’s Catholic identity.
"It’s not just a matter of Catholic teaching on this matter," said Mack, a devout Catholic. "It is a privilege for any of us to live on campus, and they are using that privilege to violate school policy, which conforms to Church teaching. You can’t ask for the privilege of living on private property and then flagrantly violate the policies of that property."
But some non-Catholic students believe they should be able to assert their opposing beliefs on campus, including through BC Students for Sexual Health.
"Boston College isn’t a ‘Catholic only’ university," said Scott Jelinek, a member of the United Church of Christ, who founded BC Students for Sexual Health in 2009. "Fewer than 70% of the students there are Catholic."
Jelinek, who graduated in 2010 and teaches science at a Denver public school, said he founded the condom-distribution group to avail students of such resources.
In his email to the Register, Chebator explained that all Boston College students are asked to respect Catholic values.
"We ask students who choose to enroll at BC to be respectful of our Jesuit, Catholic commitments," Chebator wrote. "They are free to disagree with them, but they are asked to be respectful of them."
Jekanowski, a self-described "non-practicing Catholic," insists she makes the school "more Jesuit" by distributing sexual products.
"We really emphasize the Jesuit nature of what we’re doing," Jekanowski said. "Jesuits focus on the development of the whole self: the mind, body and soul. This is right in line with that. The work we do is Jesuit Catholic."
Martin said he has often heard Jekanowski, Jelinek and other condom distributors suggest their work is "Jesuit Catholic."
"There is no substance to that argument, and nothing in that backs this up as Catholic or part of Jesuit tradition," Martin said. "But it’s really hard to tell them anything because they are not interested in dialogue."
The Boston Globe, in a story about the Boston College controversy, reported that it found more than half a dozen Catholic colleges in the United States that prohibit condom distribution, "including Georgetown, Notre Dame and The Catholic University of America."
In fact, it’s standard practice on Catholic campuses.
Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn said the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities has been "very supportive" of the college. The association believes that the college’s policies are "very consistent" with those at Catholic universities throughout the U.S., he explained.
"All Catholic colleges and universities have policies that ask students to be respectful of Catholic values," Dunn told Catholic News Agency April 2. "We refer to them as ‘Catholic Commitments.’"
Regardless, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has threatened to sue Boston College for prohibiting condom distribution, on the grounds that the student group is engaged in First Amendment-protected free speech. It further argues that the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act of 1979 prohibits both private and public entities from interfering with civil rights.
However, Dunn was dismissive of legal action.
"We’re not concerned with the threat of legal action from entities like the ACLU," Dunn said. "We’re a private, religiously affiliated institution. We reserve the right to set our policies and uphold those policies through our ‘Student Guide.’"
Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado.
Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.